WyattERP: Showdown at the Open Source Corral?

If the Internet is the modern-day Wild, Wild West, as some pundits have contended, then it seems fitting that WyattERP should be part of the effort to bring its most stubborn participants in line with the rest of the community. At least, that’s what Leslie Russell, who hosts www.opensource400.org (new window), is hoping for.

“We want this to be a jumping-off point for open source programmers,” Russell says. “We’re trying to standardize this whole open source movement.”

Russell is part of a team of AS/400 professionals aiming to be the first to bring a complete open source Enterprise Resource Planning system into the public domain for collaborative development. The project, dubbed WyattERP, targets the AS/400 programming community—which has so far proven resistant to the open source movement—with all the applications running on native RPG. The group is headed by James W. Kilgore, founder and sole member of Progressive Data Systems (Puyallup, Wash.) and author of the base code.

The source code will be made available through www.opensource400.org, hosted by Russell, an AS/400 programmer with Daytek Professional Bags Inc. in Springfield, Tenn. He predicted a working demo would be available this month.

According to Russell, several motivating factors are driving the WyattERP initiative. For him, one key component is the desire to demonstrate the viability of RPG as a business language. In both the user community and within IBM itself, Russell says the AS/400, and by extension RPG, has been regarded as the “red-headed step-child of IBM.” This attitude has resulted in a lack of commitment and investment for implementing fundamental changes to the AS/400 system. IBM, Russell continues, “should take a lesson from the Linux world.”

“The main problem with the 400 is that it’s this kind of old boys society,” he says. “They know how to do their jobs, and they do them very well, but when it comes around to some kind of change, they don’t know how to react to it. They prefer to reinvent the wheel every time they want to do something. In the Linux community, if they want to develop a new application, the first thing they do is they go looking to see if anybody’s already done it.”

Dave Andrews, of consulting firm D.H. Andrews Group (Cheshire, Conn.), agrees the idea of an entire open-source ERP system is intriguing, but is skeptical that such a far-reaching application initiative in the public domain is feasible. Andrews is even more skeptical, however, about the decision to construct WyattERP as an RPG-based set of applications. It would be much more practical, he explains, to undertake such a project using Java or another object-oriented language.

“Although I’m fascinated by the open source phenomenon and I know that this is a valuable effort, developing one just for the AS/400, I’d have trouble saying that was such a good idea,” Andrews says. “Frankly, I think this is a nostalgic effort by people who know and love RPG, to bring it into the future. They’re taking a new trend in the industry and they’re fighting against the tide, which is industry-standard languages. We all have a warm spot in our hearts for the language and for that time, but it’s not the technology of the future.”

In addition to its potential boost for RPG, however, Russell and his colleagues see open source in general as having the potential to drive improvements and innovation throughout the software development community. An enterprise-level application specifically could make open-source more appealing to a broader base of users, because it has the potential to decrease cost and improve stability through competition. This could be a crucial development for the AS/400.

“It won’t happen right away, but eventually I think this kind of competition will drive software prices down,” Russell says. “If software prices for the 400 come down, I believe the AS/400 will become more attractive to smaller businesses. More people will be buying the 400. And if there are more 400s out there, I think hardware prices come down. Ultimately I think IBM and the AS/400 will benefit from this as much as anybody.”

Reduced cost or no reduced cost, Andrews says even if the WyattERP posse is able to bring its project to completion, it may still be a hard sell in the AS/400 community, a traditionally conservative group.

“An open-source ERP could be a very popular development,” he says. “Will it work in the AS/400 environment? I don’t know—the AS/400 base aren’t generally the same group driving the development of Linux.”

Russell and his fellow developers are undeterred by the suggestion that AS/400 users may not welcome open source with open arms. Either way, he believes, the WyattERP project will benefit the whole development community, by demonstrating the full potential of open source.

“Our goal is not to compete with The Big Five,” he says. “Our goal is to raise the level of expertise in the community and to prove that it can be done. And once we do that, open source applications will be falling out of the sky.”

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